Show of Hands – Wake the Union (Hands On Music)

Show of hands, Wake the unionThe duo celebrates 20 years of quality roots music with a semi-Americana release… and does it work!

4.5 Stars

Time: 15 Tracks / 57 minutes

When I first saw Show of Hands, I was struck by how traditional their song “The Flood” sounded, even though it was about a recent catastrophe. It felt like something that would resonate with people across the centuries.

That innate sense of what connects a song to the listener has led the duo to become one of the nation’s best-loved folk acts.

Of course it is more than that: the way that Knightley rasps with emotion; their fluency on a host of stringed instruments; and their authentic and populist stance in cultural issues (“Roots” was as brilliantly perceptive a song about being British as you can get – no wonder the BNP tried to hi-jack it).To celebrate twenty years, on Wake the Union they alternate their trademark British folks songs with Americana tracks. Knightley – selected by their old mate Tom Robinson as his ‘Songwriter of the ’90s’ in a recent radio series – describes it as “a journey through the heart of two landscapes united by a common tongue and musical heritage.”

The English stream flows from fluid melody to fluid melody as songs about death, betrayal and family strife follow other songs about death, betrayal and family strife (it does make you wonder if  Knightley’s suffering at home). His level of engagement with his subjects is as phenomenal as his lyrics are photographic in the detail they portray. He sounds personally involved with everything he writes and the commissioned track “Home to a Million Thoughts” oozes nostalgic affection as it tells stories about a local musuem.

Thoughtful touches impress, such as the way the traditional song “Bonny Light Horseman” is grafted so well onto the end of the Afghanistan song, “Coming Home.” The supporting harmonies are excellently executed, too: warm enough to swell the heart, but never over-complicated or distracting.

Their Americana kicks off with “Company Town,” (http://www.showofhands.co.uk/2012/10/10/company-town-video) a 1930s-based successor to “Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed,” their popular attack on bankers. This stream – though still populated by death, tragedy and injustice – feels warmer, thanks to ample helpings of banjo, dobro, harmica, melodeon, slide guitar and omnichord. These extra instruments (many of which feature on the excellent “Aunt Maria”) give the songs more individual personalities. Chris Hoban’s hurricane lament “Katrina,” for example,  is a sparse affair, whose ominous slow introduction is like something from a tumbleweed scene in a western.

Show of Hands High-profile guests abound: Seth Lakeman, who co-wrote the typically dark opening “Haunt You,” plays bouzouki and sings, adding viola elsewhere; BJ Cole brings his legendary pedal steel to “Who Gets to Feel Good?”; Martin Simpson’s slide guitar decorates “Aunt Maria;” The Duhks’ banjo player Leonard Podolak graces “Katrina,” while Andy Cutting… well, he plays on every other folk album anyway.

It might be that these extra players hide Phil Beer’s contribution a little, but when his fiddle does feature, it takes off and the song shifts a gear. Elsewhere, his cuatro, viola and vocals are an integral part of Show of Hands’ musical chemistry.

There is genuinely not a bad track on here and the quality only starts to dip after the first dozen songs (the lighter “Stop Copying Me,” with its echoed refrain, is more at home live than on record; the “King of the World”  line “playground free from faith… the age of man is here at last” is surprisingly shallow from such a perceptive writer and the closing “Thanks” touches on musical credits).

It says much for the Bard of Exeter’s writing that nearly all of these songs are more engaging than the poetic Dylan song “Seven Curses.” His strength is in the story songs that sparkle with detail.

I can only presume that Show of Hands will need to hone several more acceptance speeches, ready for the next Radio 2 Folk Awards. It is surely not a matter of whether they win the gong for best song, but which of these will take the prize.

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